Thursday, March 30, 2023

Although Yitzchak intended to give the brachot to Eisav, Yaakov pretends he is Eisav and receives them instead. Yitzchak soon after realized what happened, and then understood that Yaakov was truly the worthy one; and now, apparently, Eisav’s cover was fully blown. Yitzchak became aware of who Eisav really was, as after Yitzchak became aware of what occurred, he “trembled a great extreme trembling” (27:33), for he saw that “gehenom (purgatory) was open beneath him” [Eisav] (Rashi with Gur Aryeh). (Which seemingly means that Yitzchak now understood that Eisav had led his life in a way that he was prone to end up there). Surprisingly however, we find that Yitzchak nevertheless blesses Eisav quite significantly, and even after Yaakov escapes from home, Yitzchak allows Eisav to continue serving him! Asks Rav Yaakov Galinsky, if Yitzchak saw Eisav’s doom, why is he keeping such a close connection to him? Is there even a point of trying to influence him for the better?

The Gemara (Chagiga) relates the story of the famed Elisha ben Avuya (AKA “Acher”) who violated a certain transgression, and whereupon heard a Heavenly voice that declared a disinterest for his teshuva. Acher seemed to interpret this as meaning that there’s no hope for him even if he does teshuva, so he figured that if he has no chance at olam haba—the world to come, he might as well take advantage of olam hazeh—this world. He continued on with his life commiting terribly evil misdeeds. Interestingly enough, the great Rebbi Meir nevertheless kept close contact with him even though Acher was committed to his new lifestyle and wouldn’t budge from his belief that there’s no hope for himself. Similar to the wonderment above, why did Rebbi Meir stay in contact with someone who is determined to continue in his evil ways?

Rav Galinsky uncovers a fascinating observation. Do you know from whom Rebbi Meir descended from? Nero Caesar, the fifth Roman emperor. Nero originally set out to attack Jerusalem. He had a sign that showed he would be successful. Yet, before he went to destroy it, he asked a young boy: tell me a pasuk you are studying. The boy stated the pasuk where Hashem says “I will take revenge against Edom…etc.” Upon hearing that, Nero realized that although he would be successful, he would however end up being punished. He fled, and converted to Judaism. (Gemara Gittin, 56)

Now it seems that Nero was originally an evil person, for if not for hearing this from the boy, in theory he would have been ready to attack Jerusalem. But his conscience was sparked at the last moment, and he threw everything away and changed. He became a totally different and new person. And who descended from him? Rebbi Meir himself.

Rebbi Meir knew who he came from! He descended from a person who showed us the power of the soul—that when it’s triggered, it can inspire one to surpass even an ingrained depraved character, and inspire one to transform into a totally different person. Rebbi Meir perhaps knew this and he therefore kept close to Acher, because even as evil as Acher became, he still had a soul, and that soul could have broken through all the mud and terrible misdeeds that Acher filled his essence with. Likewise, Yitzchak kept Eisav close, perhaps because Yitzchak knew this power of the soul, and the unlimited strength that the soul contains to enable one rise above all the self-inflicted damage—no matter what it was—and become a changed and new person.

As we see from Nero this (sometimes) hidden inner power applies even to non-Jews. There’s a mind boggling account of the veracity of this phenomenon. During the destruction of the first temple, Nevuzaradan—the “chief slaughterer” (i.e. executioner)—in a certain valley murdered 2,110,000 people, and in Jerusalem, 940,000 people including the Sanhedrin and even schoolchildren! But right after, he had a thought that tugged at his conscience and he ran away and converted. It may be difficult to imagine, but we can glean from here that even an utterly ruthless person who may not even be Jewish, nevertheless contains a spark of morality which when ignited, can propel one to rise through even a thickly callous character and through myriads of outrageous misdeeds, and instead inspire one to become a brand new person.

Before Yitzchak blessed Yaakov, whom he thought was Eisav, the pasuk says he smelled the fragrance of his [Yaakov’s] clothing (which was really Eisav’s) and then he blessed him. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah, 65:22 with Rashi) says that what moved Yitzchak to bless Yaakov wasn’t the actual smell of his begadim, clothing, but rather it was the bogedim, betrayers, i.e., those of Yaakov’s future descendants who would rebel and betray their people and the Torah, but in the end would ultimately do teshuva.

Why was it specifically that category of Jews who pleased Yitzchak? Perhaps because those betrayers highlight and amplify this soul-strength, for their drastic turnaround from rock bottom reveals this unbelievable innate power (see “Majesty of Man,” Toldos, p. 79). We can suggest based on this that Yitzchak believed in and loved the power of the soul, for that’s perhaps what moved him to give the brachot. It could then make sense why he kept Eisav close, because Yitzchak believed that Eisav too, despite where he was holding, also could have changed for the better.

The midrash there, in reference to the interpretation of the aforementioned pasuk, brings the story of Yosef MiShisa as an example of a Jew who betrayed his people and Torah, going so far as to collaborate with the enemy—the Romans. He personally was the first to plunder the Temple and take out one of its sacred vessels. Shockingly however, when asked to re-enter a second time and remove more of them, he suddenly adamantly refused, and proclaimed, “I angered my God once; I should anger him again!?”

What a dramatic turnaround! All of a sudden when asked to plunder a second time, his soul was kindled, and he did such a teshuva and became such a deep believer of God that he accepted the intense torture of the Roman’s and his subsequent death.

The soul can inspire one to plunge through all one’s internal mess, and through years and years of wrongdoings—suddenly and in such a short amount of time. This soul-strength—this power of the soul—is what we all possess.

Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work

Sign up now!